Thought Control and Controlling Our Thoughts

by Michael J. Sauter on September 21, 2012 · 6 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Philosophers & Saints

Abbey of the Genesee

Last evening I had the joy of taking a dozen-plus college students to the Abbey of the Genesee for the first of this year’s “Newman Community Book Discussion with Monks.” The Trappist monastery is just a few miles down the road from the college, (heading in the direction Bill Kauffman’s Batavia—always a good sign!), and so, maybe seven or eight times a school year, a number of us pile into a few cars and sometimes using an article or chapter of a book as a touchstone, (hence: “Book Discussion”), we just chew the fat with some of the monks for an hour or so, and then end our short visit by praying Compline with the brothers in the Abbey Church.

No bells or whistles, no pizza and no flashy program title based on the usual formula for all college activities, “Something Cheesey, 101,” (“Dudes in Robes 101”?), the occasional trips themselves serve to work as a ferment over the course of a student’s time at college that’s as valuable, I’ve noticed, as anything else they’ll learn while at school.

Left behind on campus are the usual go-rounds and attendant stagnation of theist/atheist debates or, even worse, in-house Catholic, progressive/traditionalist nonsense. Instead, the word “immersion,” as well as something akin to a beginner’s swimming lesson, characterizes the feel of the place. The conversations are led by men who stopped standing on the side of the ocean crippled by childish fear, (Note: This is the stage before arguing about the existence of the ocean itself or whether the ocean is, in fact, a progressive or reactionary force), and actually took the plunge, yelling “Sink or swim!” and trusting all the while the voice of He who said “come.”

Simply put, the rapport between monks and today’s young adults is a thing of beauty. Most of our young come from an experience of parish life dominated by generation-based and media-fueled certitudes regarding things like the role of formal education, the meaning of social justice, and the importance of national politics that all seem a bit abstract, distant, beside the point, or just plain wrong. These thoughts barrage them relentlessly in school and on the idiot box for 12 years or more prior to college.

Call that an effort at thought control.

Now, the difference between Gen Xers and the Millennials is just not that big of a deal to monks inside the monastery; and, as for “media-fueled” ideas, for the most part they are blissfully left outside the monastic enclosure. There’s a freshness and originality of thought there which is the opposite of what many would think.  Mind you, these Trappists are pretty austere.

In contrast, and in the course of an effortless digression last night, our monk host started talking about “Those two voices inside you . . . you know, the one that calls you towards excess and the other one that beats you up for the excess. Yeah, they’re always chasing each other around inside you. They play off each other. Don’t they? This is Desert Father’s stuff. Scripture stuff. We call those the ‘passions.’ Here we cultivate silence and prayer so that we can watch them, understand them, and tame them.”

Call that an effort at inspiring us to control our thoughts!

This stuff is not distant to the young adults in the discussion. It hits decidedly close to home. The students’ look of wonderment conveyed something I know from a decade of campus ministry. He was talking about characters that exist, not on TV or at distant political conventions, but in their own heads, inside their very thinking.

The fact that this lack of control over thinking is tied to technology and is growing more pervasive by the year is something that’s obvious to me. And the fact that this problem ranks in priority, (Mark 7:20–“But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles,” or Owen Barfield’s “interior is anterior”), and is intimately related to the current political morass is something else that’s obvious to me, (and most likely Dr. Peters as well).   

It was also of import to the ever-prophetic John Cowper Powys:

It’s astonishing to think how long humanity has existed and how little we have advanced in gaining control over our own thoughts.  To control your thoughts—that is the most important thing you can do;  far more important than to control your children or your food or your drink or your wife or your husband or your business or your work or your reputation.  He who can control his thoughts is at the key position of the Cosmos!  –Philosophy of Solitude (1933)

Oh, Johnny! If you only knew how bad it’s gotten since 1933!

“You are your thought’s bitch.” It’s not very eloquent, but it’s my own coinage in campus ministry and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times when I’ve listened to a student whose seemingly ordinary thought that, for example, ‘tomorrow is going to be a bad day’ has developed a stranglehold on their mind disproportionate to the reality of the workings of the world and chance. And the reality of these inner thought-producing voices—these old pals of the Desert Fathers—be it the “tempter” or the “inner prosecutor,” has as much to do with students acting out while in college as does the availability of the outer temptations on campus.

In discussing a “mature appropriation of the Faith” that doesn’t get caught in the polemics of liberal vs. conservative, the monastic rejoinder last night was simply a shrug of the shoulders and a matter-of-fact answer, “that which produces true freedom!”

What has any of this to do with the Front Porch? It’s to plead, on behalf of young people especially, for a localist approach that includes the inner as well as the outer world, as well as one that fosters the bi-directional nature of the best localist concerns. Sure, tending to your backyard garden will help you ‘control the passions,’ but equally true is the fact that ‘controlling the passions’ will help your backyard garden! Fact.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Daniel September 21, 2012 at 10:54 am

The old Benedictine interchange between work and prayer, as well as values such as stability and hospitality, always seemed to me to be suspiciously akin to the localist mindset.

I heard an Eastern spiritual father once say that the monastic life is the default life for a Christian, and it is therefore those who are married and/or who work in the world who exercise a special calling and, in some cases, a more difficult calling. In both cases a certain extent of ascesis is necessary, since the passions rage in all of us. “Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth…”

avatar robert m. peters September 21, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Ascesis, the heart of conversion and redemption, a component of Stoicism and the classical Christian understanding. In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, we begin with an understanding of ourselves, creatures – fallen creatures – and because of that realization we become “poor in spirit” or humble.

If we get to that stage, an millions if not billions do not, then were mourn over our condition, that of the rebel, he who lacks discipline, he who is not what he was created to be.

Then, an here is the place of and the genesis of redemption and conversion as God’s gift of grace meets God’s give of grace, we like the wild horse submit ourselves to the Master, we become meek, i.e. open and responsive to His training, not loosing in some “nirvana” our very being or becoming a thrall but on the contrary making ourselves an ox-fellow with Him, becoming the unique creature we were intended to be rather than the fallen and decaying rebel which we were.

Submitted to Him, we then hunger and thirst after righteousness, which, it turns out is He is the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst, questing for an ever deeper knowing of Him, not a knowing about Him, submitting ourselves even more to Him as we come to better know Him, acquiring a deeper ascesis.

Then comes the first fruit: we like Him, as He does to us, are able to show mercy.

When we can show the first fruit, a likeness to Him in mercy, He calls us the pure of heart.

With a pure heart, we can become peace makers, not in the worldly sense of ending wars and earning “Noble Peace Prizes” but in the real relations of peace with our spouses, peace with our children, peace with our friends, peace in the local Body of Christ, peace with our neighbors, i.e. living Christianly in the real which is essentially our homes, our churches and our intimate communities.

Then, we get the high honor of being persecuted for righteousness sake, for His sake; for if you live the Christian life, you will have enemies, which we as Christians must acknowledge as our enemies, not pretending under the guise of “tolerance” that we have none or if we have them, that it is our fault. We must have enemies if we are Christians. It is in the nature of things. We must, however, at our Lord’s command love them. Now, that is hard and something which we do not wish to think about.

Modernity confuses self-discipline or ascesis with the “slave mentality,” it confuses leisure with idleness with all of the consumerist entertainment which goes with the latter; and it confuses solitude with loneliness.

avatar Marion Miner September 22, 2012 at 12:51 am

Great post (and great comments, both). This has been a good little night-time read.

avatar Eric Brooks October 8, 2012 at 9:21 pm

“even worse, in-house Catholic, progressive/traditionalist nonsense.”

I think it is incredibly naive to pretend that the desert fathers are too “spiritual” to care about this sort of thing. If the lives of the desert fathers do not contain the sort of dogmatic arguments found in other early Christian writings, we should not suppose this means there is a division between those ancient Christians who cared about preserving orthodoxy and those ancient Christians who decided to dive in as deeply as possible to the spiritual life. As a matter of fact, if you look in the anecdotes on Charity in the Latin Lives of the Desert Fathers you will find several warnings about keeping company with heretics. The point is always one about the spiritual life: you should stay with a brother who has fallen into theft or fornication in hopes that they, by grace, will put away the old man and and come into holiness. But we should not keep company with heretics because they have uprooted the initial seed of grace from their souls by their faith in false doctrines. I have my copy of the Lives packed away in a box right now so I cannot look up the specific quotation, but as you are educated and are friends with monks I am sure you will have no trouble looking it up if you don’t want to take my word for it. The modernist idea that spirituality is universal and uniting and arguments about orthodoxy are divisive and superficial is bad, and the desert fathers rightly point out why it is bad: there is no possibility of true spirituality, no possibility of salvation, without the true faith. And the whole point of the work of the inner life is salvation.

avatar Michael J. Sauter October 10, 2012 at 7:48 am

It seems to me, Eric, that you took my “traditionalist” comment, changed the key to “orthodoxy”, and took me to task as a promoter of heresy. The monks themselves responded by linking to the article in their Abbey News, (at the website).

In the comment, I was trying to get at the false dichotomies between those who take sides on behalf of the illusion of the good ole days and those high on the future drug. Between those two positions, as it’s experienced in parish life, (I wanted to suggest), there is not much difference. It just makes for bitterness and keeps minds distracted and self-satisfied while avoiding the real issue of inner work and, I’d say, orthodoxy. I could have made this clearer, and your recollection of the Church Fathers is solid. I’m all for orthodoxy and against what Ross Douthat calls, “Bad Religion”. I’ve been toying with an article on this phenomenon as I experience it and think about it. You may have tipped my hand!

avatar Chris Travers October 27, 2012 at 8:54 am

As a mystical heathen, I think this is more or less right on. But one thing that is typically missing is how integrated we are as individuals. Our modern liberal cosmology tells us that we are our thoughts and therefore our thoughts are not to be controlled since they define us. Our emotions are to be discarded. Our bodies can be replaced or augmented piece by piece, but our thoughts define us. Except that this is at best misguided and at worst a lie.

Controlling our thoughts is important because our thoughts because this is the first step out of the sickness of the modern world and the beginning of the journey into self-synthesis. Once we achieve integration of purpose and thought, then emotion falls in line to become our greatest ally rather than a force of nature to be distrusted. Our emotions take us places, and every emotion in place is a powerful ally, whether it is anger or outrage, or love or grief, or joy. No longer do we lose sight of purpose. Emotion becomes an expression of purpose and a motivating force.

I summarize this by borrowing an ancient metaphor and repurposing it. Plato knew it. The Hindus knew it. Now for the persent:

I am the charioteer. The chariot is my body. The horses are my emotions. The reins are my thoughts. I am the charioteer.

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